Zombie brains and metacognition: How to use the undead to help students increase learner agency

04 Jan 2021 7:52 AM | Anonymous

Melissa Maffeo Masicampo, PhD 

Wake Forest University 


I’m a mean teacher, its true. I trick my students all the time. I’ve given my students PTC paper to demonstrate bitter taste (I do warn them first, though). Once I encouraged a Pepsi vs. Coke taste-test and debate and got the students really riled up. The thing was, unbeknownst to them, both of the sodas they tasted were Coke. My biggest trick, though, is teaching students to use metacognitive strategies without them even knowing it. And I do it with zombie brains.  

Zombies are the perfect model organism for studying neuroscience. In neuroscience, researchers will often manipulate the brain of a model organism like a rat or mouse, and then observe the behaviors through carefully planned testing. Zombie brains are already altered, and these alterations result in some very specific behaviors. Since we can’t get our hands on a real zombie to examine the actual underlying neural damage, we have to infer the damage through careful observations of their behavior. To provide one example, Voytek and Verstynen (2014) argue that, based on characteristics of movement, there are two subtypes of zombies. Type 1 zombies are the prototypical stiff-moving zombie with the slow, lumbering gait and wide-legged stance. And yet, they appear to have little to no trouble initiating or executing goal-directed movement. These zombies very likely have damage to regions of the cerebellum, leaving basal ganglia and cortical motor pathways largely intact.  Conversely, Type II zombies can move very quickly and very little difficulty moving from victim to victim. From this motor behavior, we can infer that Type II zombies probably have little, if any, damage to motor areas of their brains. Voytek and Verstynen point out that any motor impairment of Type II zombies is probably more likely due to the fact that their arms and legs are rotting, rather than a specific neural deficit. Type II zombies, however, might lack attentional control, as they appear to move quickly from victim to victim, hardly devouring the first victim before shifting attention to the next.  

Using zombie brains and behavior as a backdrop, my goal is to design engaging assignments that help students develop skills to become more efficient learners. Research shows that students who engage in metacognitive strategies, that is, students who learn how to learn, are much more poised to achieve learning outcomes for their courses (for review, see Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, 2014 and Lai, 2011). In this essay, I’d like to share some of these assignments that I’ve used in my classes. But first, I’d like you to imagine you are a student, sitting in your first biopsychology class. Your worst nightmare has come true – your university is now overrun with the flesh hungry undead. You know in your heart that you and your peers must not only learn biopsychology, but also master it, in order to find a cure for this awful affliction and save your campus. To do so, your professor unleashes her plan for training, practice, and ultimate mastery of both biopsychology and the apocalypse:  

 Strategic Planning Exercises. These weekly reflections are intended to be low stakes formative assignments that help students engage in metacognitive strategies. In this way, students can “strategically plan” for both the zombie apocalypse and for larger stakes assignments. In most semesters, there are four ways a student can complete their strategic planning:  

Conduct a necropsy: Students had to find a zombie kill it, and bring it back to their lab for necropsy. After examining the brain, students should write a blog post about their observations. The blog post should describe a brain area or system, the role of that area/system in human behavior, and how it because dysregulated in the zombie brain to produce aberrant zombie behavior.  

Video lab notebook: In a video lab notebook, students could video record themselves teaching a topic to me – but that catch is that they must do it with no notes.  

Reflection: In this Strategic Planning, students could submit a journal reflection to me, following the prompt, ““Something I learned recently that I found particularly interesting is _____. I think this topic is super cool because _____, and it relates to my life because _____. I was also a bit confused by ____, but one thing I did to help myself understand the content was ____.” 

Demonstration: To demonstrate knowledge, students have the opportunity to work either solo or in small groups to create a skit, screenplay, or other artifact reflecting course content – the sillier, the better!  

Target Practice. In every good apocalypse, its important to test our aim to make sure we’re actually doing what we should be doing. It would not be a good idea to go into a zombie battle without any target practice, and nor would it be a good idea to begin a high stakes assignment without practice! In this class, Target Practices are low-stakes, progressively cumulative quizzes that students take outside of class time through the learning management system.  

Battles. These are the highest-stakes assignments, and this is what students prepare for with the strategic planning and target practice. This is where we take everything we know and go fight those zombies. Students typically have four Battles over the course of the semester. The first Battle asks students to write a short story or narrative where the characters of the story are either brain areas or cells of the nervous system. The functions of the area or cell must be evident from the behavior of the character. Battles two and three ask students to respond to a primary research article in a ‘summarize-connect-apply’ format. The final Battle is a group project. Each group asks a question about aberrant zombie behavior (e.g., as a zombie is ruthlessly devouring your flesh, can it recognize you?”). Each group presents their answer to the class and submits a short written summary of their findings.  

By doing these regular assignments, students are less likely to fall behind because procrastination is less of an option. All too often, students sit in classes with unit exams, and don’t begin studying for that exam until a day or two prior (at best!). The student might make a high grade on the exam, but they will likely not retain the material they were tested on. At the start of the semester, I ask students if they’ve ever had experiences like what I just described, and invariably, most hands go up. I take the opportunity to explain to my students that my primary course objective is to help them learn biopsychology and think about it in their everyday lives. To do this, I tell them, I encourage them to start thinking about their own thinking, and start engaging in evidence-informed good learning practices. Using these practices will not only help them in this class, but also in other classes and even outside the classroom. I’ve received good anecdotal feedback from students, saying that they have used strategies like these in their other classes, with good results. I’ve also had students say things like, “The assignments are bad, because they force you to stay on top of the material, but they’re also good, because they force you to stay on top of the material.” I’ll take that as a win.  

By taking this class, students are gaining exposure to techniques that should help them think about their own thinking, and experience learning as a process, not as a destination. When students learn to reflect on the course content, it encourages engagement with the course content, as well as engagement with the instructor and their peers. In this way, students start making connections between aspects of their lives and aspects of the course, which further solidifies learning. And, by the way, my students can learn biopsychology in the midst of a zombie apocalypse as they fight to save their campus. Can yours?  



Brown, P., Roediger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014) Making it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  

Lai, E. (2011) Metacognition: A literature review. Retrieved from http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/metacognition_literature_review_final.pdf 

Verstynen, T. & Voytek, B (2014) Do zombies dream of undead sheep? A neuroscientific view of the zombie brain. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 


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